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Should Your Shoulder Blades Lift in Yoga?

When you hear “Relax your shoulders” in a yoga class, are you actually relaxing them? Or are you pushing them down your back? I’ve found in my years of teaching that most people come to yoga thinking it’s never ok to lift their shoulders and shoulder blades. I’m here to tell you that your shoulder blades were meant to MOVE. That means up, down, side to side – all directions! It’s healthier to move them, and here is how you should be and why.

Why You Want Your Shoulder Blades to Move:

There’s an order of operations to how the shoulder joint moves and stabilizes, and it starts with our shoulder blades. I want to make the sciency biomechanic stuff easy for you to understand, so here it goes:

We want stability in our joints. It helps our body feel safe, and when our body feels safe, there’s less of a chance it will tighten up or tell you that something hurts.

The thing in charge of stabilizing the shoulder joint is called your rotator cuff.

Your rotator cuff can’t do it’s job super well unless other parts of the shoulder are moving properly. It’s one of the last things to fire in the order of operations, but one of the most important things TO fire.

Here’s the order of operations:

Shoulder blade moves into position.

Your rotator cuff engages to help pull your upper arm bone back.

Upper arm bone pulls back and creates a safe, strong, stable shoulder joint.

So How Should the Shoulder Blade Be Moving?

This is where things get a little funky – when your arms are above your head, your shoulder blade goes both up and down. Another way of putting it is that the rotate forwards and up. Weird and confusing, right? Let me show you:

In the image above, you can see the upward rotation of the outer part of the shoulder blade. But you’re not lifting it straight up – it’s going around and up, while the inner part of the shoulder blade – the part closest to your spine – goes down.

Watch the video below to see this in action. Scroll to time stamp 0:26 to see what it looks like overhead:

See how the outside of the shoulder blade wraps forwards and up, but the inside part of the shoulder blade has to actually rotate down? So when you’re lifting your arms above your head and then forcing your shoulders down your back, you’re jamming up that shoulder blade and preventing it from doing it’s job – lifting the arm, and signaling to the rotator cuff that it’s time to stabilize your joint.

I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s so important!! We don’t always want to be forcing our shoulders down! They’re supposed to move and stopping them from doing so can sometimes create pain in our shoulders.

Give it a try right now:

Reach your arms above your head and try to feel the rotation of the outer shoulder blade wrapping forwards and up, while the inner part of the shoulder blade goes down to allow for the elevation of the outer part of the shoulder blade.

How did that feel?

Now try it the other way –

Reach your arms up and push your shoulder blades down your back. Doesn’t feel too good does it?

So from now on in yoga, life – everything – make sure you allow your shoulder blades movement. They’re supposed to go up and down, side to side – they move in every direction!

Leave me a comment or shoot me an email at kateformanyoga@gmail.com and let me know how this felt, but more importantly if you have any questions. I know it can get confusing when you dive deep into anatomy and I want to make it easy for you to understand.

3 Exercises for Healthy Shoulders

No matter what you do for a living, chances are your shoulders at some point have bothered you. Shoulder stretching is one of the most common requests that I get as a yoga instructor. Forget the wear and tear of sitting at a desk or having a job as a server or construction worker – just being hunched over on our phones all day can lead to shoulder stress and discomfort! If you want to make sure your shoulders stay healthy, flexible, and strong, check out these videos for healthy shoulders below.

3 Exercises for Healthy Shoulders:

Thread the Needle

Try this for a good stretch to the neck and shoulder blade. Once you’re loose there, give the next 2 exercises a try

Shoulder T Lift Offs

Make sure that your shoulders aren’t lifting too much towards your ears here. If you feel this in the space between your neck and shoulder, try lowering your shoulder blades and pinching the lowest part of your shoulder blades together. You may still feel it in the space between your neck and shoulder, but you should also be feeling it in your back.

Controlled Shoulder Circles

This is HARD, so if you’re struggling that is OK! Do your best not to lean to 1 side and not to backbend. The floor will stop you from the back-bending a bit. Also do your best to keep your head down. The goal is here to use only the shoulder joint to move – not the rest of our bodies.

If shoulder mobility is something you’re looking to improve, check out my mobility classes every Wednesday at 8am EST. These classes draw from science-backed movement practices and are not yoga (but they will help your yoga practice!). Click the link below to sign up!

If you ever have any questions about anything feel free to drop a comment below or shoot me an email at kateformanyoga@gmail.com or DM me across all social media platforms @kateformanyoga

What to Look for When Buying a Yoga Mat

Overwhelmed by the many yoga mat options? I gotchu! I’m going to break down the 4 most important things to consider when you’re buying a yoga mat, and 1 sales gimmick that really doesn’t make a difference and you can stay away from. Keep reading to find out!

The 4 Most Important Considerations When Buying a Yoga Mat:

Image says what to look for when buying a yoga mat. Underneath is the instagram and facebook handle @kateformanyoga. The 4 things to look for are cushion, stickiness, price, and length.

1. Cushion

This is going to depend on your body, but in general the cushion needs to be enough so you can feel comfortable with your knees down, but not so soft you feel like it squishes completely under you feet. The softer the mat is, the harder it’s going to be for you to balance. The less cushion a mat has, the more your knees may bother you. That being said, you could always slide a yoga blanket or pillow under your knees if you feel like you need that extra cushioning for your knees!

2. Stickiness

When you see a mat at the store, try sliding your hand on it – does it get stuck easily? Then it probably will also get stuck easily in downdog – which is a good thing! If it feels waxy or slippery in any way, then chances are your hand will slide in downdog, which can be really frustrating and actually make your yoga practice feel harder. If it’s rough/textured or literally sticky, then you’re probably going to stay put in your downdogs and feel more comfortable in your practice as a result.

3. Price

Yoga mats have a huuuuge range of pricing – all the way from $10-$100. Mats you buy at big box stores tend to be on the lower pricing but they also tend to be thinner and more slippery. Other brands like Manduka or Jade mats that have been around forever and are on the high end of the spectrum, but will be thicker and more sticky. There are other brands in the mid-range pricing, such as Gaiam, that may also hit the first 2 mat requirements on this list.

4. Length

This may or may not be something you need to consider. If you’re short like me (I’m 5’2), it really doesn’t make a difference. But if you’re particularly tall (like maybe 5’10 or more), you’re probably going to want to get a longer mat so you can make sure you have enough room on the mat to practice. There are some companies that specifically design longer mats for taller practitioners – a simple google search for “long yoga mat” should show you your options!

1 Yoga Mat Sales Gimmick to Avoid:

Yoga Mat Alignment Lines

There are some mats that try to sell you on them because of the lines that are “perfectly placed” so you can make sure you’re “staying in good alignment”. Personally I think this is totally unnecessary and I’ll tell you why:

Your body is not the same as someone else’s, which means your yoga practice is not going to have the same alignment as someone else’s.

Certain things may be the same, certain things might not. Certain things one person does that feels good to them may not feel good to you.

Let’s Look at Warrior 1 as an Example:

Your ability to get your hips to face forward in warrior 1 depends almost completely on your ankle mobility. So those of us with poor ankle mobility need to find a wider stance in order to adjust the leg to help turn the hips forwards. If you have great ankle mobility you may be more comfortable in a narrower stance.

So arbitrary lines that some yoga company is calling the “correct alignment” just shows that they actually don’t really understand biomechanics and how bodies function in real life.

This Can Be Applied to the Weight Room Too:

If you’ve ever heard trainers say not to use the weight machines in gyms – this is the same principle. The weight machines in a gym track your body in 1 direction and don’t allow you to move differently than the pathway that’s already been determined by the machine. Again – your body is not your neighbors, which means it needs to move specific to its own design – not the design of a machine, and not the design of a yoga company drawing “alignment lines” on a mat.

There is an Exception:

Now the only exception to this I would say is if you like how it looks. If that’s the case, then go for it. But if you’re using it so you can make sure your alignment is “correct”, then don’t bother.

I hope this was helpful for you to decide what your best mat option is for you! If you have any questions feel free to drop me a comment or shoot me an email at kateformanyoga@gmail.com and I’m happy to help you on your mat journey.

4 More Yoga Myths and Yoga Truths Continued…

Have you ever heard any of these cues or statements about yoga and how it can benefit you? If so, you may be hearing a few yoga myths that permeate the yoga world. This is a continuation of a previous blog post with 4 yoga myths and truths. If you’ve already read that one, keep reading here to find out 4 more yoga myths and the reasons why these are myths and not truths.

Picture of someone doing downward facing dog with text overlaid that reads "4 Yoga Myths and 4 Yoga Truths Continued...".

Myth #1: Your Shin Should be Parallel to the Front of your Mat in Pigeon Pose

Another big NO here. Mine can’t do that, and from what I’ve seen from my teaching career, it’s pretty rare that someone has that kind of range of motion in their hips. Here’s what you should know:

  • Pigeon pose comes from having the ability to turn your leg bone open in your hip joint. Everyone’s body is built different, and sometimes people have hip joints that won’t allow this huge range of motion. So the ability to do this is somewhat anatomical, which means it won’t ever change no matter how much you stretch.
  • If you don’t have the flexibility or anatomical structure required to do a movement in your body, your body will try to find that flexibility elsewhere. In the case of pigeon pose, it often comes from twisting and tweaking your knee. Not good. Not worth it.

So, how should you be doing pigeon?

Have your leg more folded up. Have your foot closer to your pubic pose rather than thinking of paralleling the shin to the front of your mat.

If you want to learn more about this, make sure to check out my pigeon pose tutorial on YouTube:

Myth #2: Having Muscle Means You Can’t Be Flexible

FALSE. This is an Alvin Ailey dancer. Case in point:

This image is of an Alvin Ailey dancer who is wearing red pants and is not wearing a shirt and has a 6 pack and very muscular arms. One one side he's jumping in the air with his legs completely spread, and the other side of the picture he's balancing on his toes on one foot while the other leg is directly in line and in the air showing extreme flexibility.

Myth #3: Your Shoulder Blades Should Never Lift

When you reach up to a cabinet in your kitchen to grab a glass, are you aware of how your shoulder blade is moving? Probably not. Go ahead and do it without changing anything. Your shoulder blade lifted up didn’t it? Yes, unless you jammed your shoulder blades down your back, it did. So this is SUPPOSED to happen when our arms go above our head. Without getting into the nitty-gritty anatomy geeky stuff, stop forcing your body to do something it was built to do. If it feels better for your shoulder to lift, chances are it’s supposed to be doing that. Trust your body – it knows and will communicate to you when things are right or wrong.

Myth #4: “Practice and All is Coming”

I might get some backlash on this one, especially from those of you who practice Ashtanga Yoga. If you’re unfamiliar, this phrase was coined by Pattabhi Jois (the big Ashtanga Yoga honcho) in the context of practicing yoga.

Now, before everyone starts freaking out – sure, yes, practicing yoga will make you get better at yoga. That’s not what I’m arguing here.

I’m arguing the extreme that this quote has been taken to. Here are some examples of what I mean:

It Doesn’t Account for Anatomical and Structural Differences

Example #1: Downdog
Example #2: Pigeon Pose
  • If your hip socket is smaller, your leg probably won’t ever get parallel to the front of the front of your mat. Your thigh bone will hit your hip bone trying to do so and it probably won’t feel great.
Example #3: Splits
  • Same ideas a pigeon pose. If your hip socket doesn’t have the room in it for your thigh bone to move completely forwards and back, front splits probably aren’t in the cards for you.

And all of this is completely OK and should be normalized in yoga. Your body is not mine or your neighbors, so why should your yoga practice look exactly the same? It should not.

So those are my 4 yoga myths. Here are some questions for you – drop me a comment with your answers:

  1. Do you have any others you think belong on this list?
  2. Not sure about a cue you heard in class?
  3. Anything unclear?

Stretching and Pain – What’s the Difference?

Sometimes it can be tough to know if you’re feeling the “right” thing in a yoga class. I’ve been asked a few times if the place a student is feeling the stretch is correct. Here are a few signs to look for if you’re not sure if you’re feeling a stretch in the right place and how to tell the difference between stretching and pain.

Picture of someone stretching with text overlayed that says How to Tell the Difference Between Stretching and Pain.

For a lot of people, especially those who are on the more flexible side, it can be really challenging to figure out what exactly is going on in your body. I myself have been guilty of this. When I first started practicing yoga I would come into a low lunge with the back knee down and lean my hips as far forwards as I could. This was the only way I could actually feel anything in this pose, but I later learned that what I was feeling wasn’t exactly a stretching sensation in the right place.

It can be pretty common for people to feel like they need to go to the absolute extreme in order to feel something, especially if the person leans more on the flexible side, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I started to feel something around my front hip, and thought “well that’s what I should be feeling.” Fast forward a few years later to me learning about the body and I realize this was not a muscular stretch that I was feeling. Why? 

Because in general, you want to feel stretches in the “belly”, or center, of the muscle.

So in this stretch, I would have ideally felt it more in the center of the front of my thigh – not closer to the hip where I had been feeling it.

If this is confusing, don’t worry. Here are a few simple bullet points to look for when you’re practicing yoga to make sure you’re feeling a stretch and not pain:

  • Make sure the feeling you’re feeling is in the center of the muscle – not closer to a joint. So in a forward fold, try to feel it in the center of your back thigh – not close to the knee – not close to your butt. 
    • Note: If you don’t feel it here, adjust your position and get creative and explorative to try to find a place where you do feel it in the center of the muscle. This might mean engaging the muscle more, or backing out of the stretch even.

Ask Yourself These Questions:

  1. Are you feeling something sharp? This is pain.
  2. Are you feeling something pinch? This is pain.
  3. Is the feeling dull or achy? This could also be pain.

Ultimately a stretch should feel good. It can feel intense, but it should ultimately feel good. That is the main difference between stretching and pain.

And I’ll leave with a question for you: What poses are you not quite sure that you’re feeling the right thing? How can you change what you’re doing and get explorative in your practice to figure out what works best for your body? 

Drop me your answers in the comments below, and if there’s a pose you’re not sure how to alter let me know as well!

Should You Let Your Knees Go Past Your Ankles?

Should you let your knees go past your ankles? What about if you have an injured knee?

I posted this tweet on my Instagram a few weeks ago, and boy did I hear a lot of opinions on the matter

A lot of people were upset by this because their doctors have told them not to let this happen because of their knee injuries, so I’m going to cut this off at the pass before diving deeper into this subject, and say this tweet was NOT about you if you have knee injuries. This was a post meant for people with healthy knees, who have heard this cue in yoga because it is a very common cue for yoga teachers, which in my opinion creates a fear around this action that is just unnecessary because it’s totally safe to let your knees go past your ankles.

SO now that that’s out of the way – I want to talk about this for both healthy knees and knees with pain.

Again, if your doctor has told you to avoid letting your knees go past your ankles, then listen to your doctor. I am in no way suggesting your doctor is wrong.

That being said, it’s not fair to generalize and say that everyone with knee injuries needs to avoid this movement. That’s not taking into consideration that everyone has their own individual and unique experience. What is safe for one person may be unsafe for another, and vice versa. So I personally wouldn’t even assume that this is an unsafe position for your knee even if you have knee injuries – UNLESS YOUR DOCTOR HAS SAID SO.

Let me give you an example. We’re gonna dive deep into skiing for a second, so just stick with me because I promise I’ll bring it back to you and your knees and body.

So here’s the deal. I actually have knee issues but only on my left side and only when I ski. My knee KILLS me when I ski. I’ve been skiing for 29 years, and in the last 5-10 it’s gotten so bad that I sometimes can’t walk directly afterwards. This is pretty much the only time it bothers me. And I will tell you why and how I have recently fixed it:

Skiing is basically just an elongated chair pose hold, and in chair pose your knees have to go forwards of your ankles. This movement doesn’t come from the knee – it comes from your ankle’s flexibility. And my ankle mobility sucks. So my knees don’t go forwards of my ankles very much, and because they’re SUPPOSED to do this when you ski, my body has to figure out a different place to find that movement. If you’re not a skiier, here’s a picture of what your body is supposed to look like:

When you turn, not only are your knees supposed to go even more past your ankles, but your foot/ankles have to move a bit in the boot to bring you into the turn. But like I said before, my ankle mobility is not good, so when I turn I can’t really do this from my ankles and feet, which is where my body is supposed to be finding the movement. So instead, my body has to find that movement from somewhere else. It compensates somewhere else because of the lack of movement in my ankle.

So where does my body pull the movement from? MY KNEE. Which is why it hurts when I ski.

SO – This is all to say, if my ankle mobility was better, then my knee would be able to go past my ankle and I would have the range of motion I needed to turn from my feet and ankles, and my knee wouldn’t be twisting a bit as I turn. How did I fix this recently? I put heel lifts in my shoes. Heel lifts will create more range of motion in your ankles and allow your knees to go forwards of your ankles more.

Heel lift for me = Increased ankle mobility = Decrease pain in my knee

This is a perfect example of how every single person’s body’s are different and we shouldn’t ever generalize anything.

Ok now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into this tweet and how this relates to YOU and yoga.

Do you struggle to get your heels down in a squat? If so, chances are it’s because of your ankle mobility – NOT your hip flexibility. So how do you fix this? Just like I did with skiing – LIFT YOUR HEELS! You can grab a blanket or towel and slide it under your heels to whatever height you need for your body to be able to sit down into a squat. Give it a try I promise it will help!

Your body was designed to let your knees go past your ankles. When you were born, this was something that was supposed to happen in your body. 

Unfortunately as we age, we develop certain movement patterns that may restrict this movement and we lose our ability to let our knees go forwards of our ankles. We sit a lot in the west, and use it or lose it is very real, and this is part of why we’ve, in general, lost this ability to let our knees go forwards of our ankles.

Think about children. They are usually so so flexible right? They just pop right into a squat. We were all born with this ability, but as we live our lives we fall, we get injured, we move, we develop movement habits that are specific to what we do in our lives.

Some of us maintain this flexibility in our hips and ankles because it’s been incorporated into our lives in some way as we grew older, but for a lot of people we lose it. This is why it disappears from our lives – not because we SHOULDN’T be doing it, but because we AREN’T doing it. And then things that require this movement start to get tougher. For example, in order to climb stairs, your knee needs to go forwards of your ankles to help you get up. 

Here’s a video of me letting my knees go past my ankles to climb stairs, and then trying to not let them go forwards. I almost fell backwards trying to keep them from going forwards.

So to answer the question posed in the title of this blog post:

Should you let your knees go past your ankles?

Yes – absolutely you should. If you have that ability and you don’t have pain then 100% you should be letting that happen.

Should you let your knees go past your ankles if you have a knee injury?

It depends. There is no right or wrong answer here because everyone’s pain and injuries are unique to them and their bodies and how they move and why they’re in pain.

I’m expecting some intense responses here, so drop me those comments and let me know what you think. And if you want to understand your body further and movements unique and specific to YOU, make sure you sign up for my FREE 30 minute one-on-one zoom session. It’s free for your first time working with me in a private session. I’ve dropped the link below to sign up for your time slot. Can’t wait to work with you and get you moving in a safe and individualized way 

Till next time,

Kate

4 Core Exercises To Try That Aren’t Crunches

If you’re looking to work on your core, but are sick and tired of crunches, I’m here to give you permission to toss the crunches out the window. If I’m being honest, crunches aren’t the most effective core exercise. Why? Because crunches really focus on targeting one of the MANY muscles that make up the core. 

If you want to build a strong and stable core, you need to be doing exercises that target the core on a whole. In this blog post I’m going to show you my 4 favorite core exercises to build a strong and stable core that ARE NOT CRUNCHES! But first, let’s talk about what muscles make up the core so we can understand what we’re doing in these poses:

Your core is made up of 

  • The transverse abdominus (TA)
  • Obliques
  • Diaphragm
  • Multifidus
  • Erector Spinae
  • Pelvic Floor
  • Rectus Abdominus

Here are some images of where all these muscles live inside our core:

Your rectus abdominis is the part of the core that everyone thinks of when they think of “abs.” It helps with posture, and is in charge of flexing your spine – so that’s why movements like crunches mainly target your RA. Your RA is also an important part of your core for bracing – so think of how your stomach feels in a plank pose – it helps you keep your spine straight and stable when doing something like a pushup – or a chaturanga!

Your TA is the part of your core that you want working most while MOVEMENT starts to happen. It helps with stability and control the movement of your lower spine. It’s also connected to a healthy pelvic floor, so if you’ve ever had children, the TA is an important part of the core to focus on after child birth.

Your Obliques are in charge of twists and side bends. They’re on the side of your core, and if you’ve ever seen a boxer, you’ve seen their obliques bulging out because of all of the twisting that happens in boxing. 

Your Diaphragm is what helps you breathe. I think often people don’t realize that this is a huge part of your core. If you’ve ever lifted heavy weights, you know that your diaphragmatic breathing is a HUGE component of being able to lift heavy. Why? Because it helps connect the muscles between your pelvic floor and diaphragm to work in unison to support and stabilize your spine. As you inhale with your diaphragm, it pushes into the pelvic floor. Your exhale lifts the pelvic floor up. This is al little confusing, but here’s a good visual which should help:

Video Credit: Instagram Account @pagethepa

Your multifidus and erector spinae live along your spine and helps with stability and posture. That’s right – your core is not just your front! It’s also your back! So if you think of how your body feels in a warrior 3 – if you can find your back part of your core it will help you stabilize the whole pose. No more rounded shoulders or rounded spine – finding these back muscles will help you balance in a pose like this.

SO what are better exercises for core strength than a crunch? I WILL TELL YOU! These are my top 4 exercises for core strength and stability because in general, they target the entire core. 

FOREARM PLANK

When done correctly, this is gonna hit literally all the muscles described above. Even the diaphragm! You need to find that bracing action in your core to keep your spine neutral and strong but you also need to breathe – that’s where the diaphragmatic breathing comes into play.

There are 2 other tricks to making sure you get the most bang for your buck out of this pose:

  • Make sure to keep your hips even with your shoulders – hips aren’t too high like a down dog, and you’re not dropping your hips like a backbend
  • Press the floor away from you with your forearms so that you don’t dump into your shoulders. 
  • Squeeze your glutes – this will create 3 zones of stability in your body – your glutes, core, and shoulders – and that will make it feel easier. Not easy – but easier. If you haven’t read my blog post about these three zones of stability click here to read it.

If this is really hard for you try widening your feet to wider than your hips. That wider base is going to make the pose a little bit more accessible. 

DEAD BUGS

This is a great place to try to work on TA activation. Think of pulling your belly button down towards the ground as if you’re sucking in your stomach, and then drag it up towards your rib cage. There will be a kind of hollowing out in your belly and strong deep activation in your core. Your TA lives behind your RA (those 6 pack abs) so it should feel very internal. 

Once you can do this WITHOUT movement, you can play with adding movement in. Lift one heel and then the other – if that goes well lift the whole foot – and then if that goes well and you can keep the TA activation, move one leg forwards and one arm back at the same time while keeping that pulling in and up in the belly button.

Forearm Side Plank Lifts

Like a forearm plank, these will target your whole core, but they’re really going to get your obliques. Make sure to press through the floor with your forearms so you don’t dump into your shoulder. Keep your hips up to start, and then lower them to the ground and back up again. Do this slow and with control – no plopping to the ground.

If this is tough for you, give it a try with your knees down like I do on my second side. You’ll still feel your core, you’ll still get to your obliques, but you’ll be able to build the strength and control to prepare you for doing it with your knees lifted eventually.

SALAMBASANA – LOCUST POSE

This one targets mainly that back body part of your core. Those erectors and multifidus muscles are in charge of backbending, but also work for stabilizing and good posture. Here are the things you need to really focus on to get the most out of this pose:

  • Take your tailbone towards the ground so your glutes (butt) engage
  • Think of reaching the crown of your head forwards and making space between each vertebrae as you lift.
  • I find that pointing my feet helps me find that extension and reach of the spine a bit more, but play around with this and see if it works for you too.
  • Make sure you’re not lifting with your neck here – we experience the world through our eyes, so often our head does a movement and it makes us think that the rest of our body is doing that movement. Try to let your head and neck lift in the same way that the rest of your spine is lifting – a nice gradual curve to the spine – no jagged edges or neck cranking!

The core is actually a pretty tough subject so if you have any questions please feel free to drop me a comment or shoot me an email at kateformanyoga@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you! 

Till next time,

Kate

My Yoga Story

I went to my first yoga class when I was a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. I was working for a woman who focused on feminism in Egypt, and it was right before the Egyptian Revolution broke out in 2011.

My boss was over in Egypt just in time for the height of the revolution, which meant an internet blackout, and with it, no communication with me. When I was living in DC I hadn’t made a lot of friends and was pretty unhappy. Needless to say, between this and the lack of project assignments from my boss, I had plenty of free time! So I decided to try a complete beginner’s yoga class.

After taking the class, I got in my car to drive home and was convinced I had grown taller and was inches away from hitting the roof of my car with my head (I was not – I’m only 5’2 – but at the time the extra height felt so real!). My body felt better and for the first time in my life my head felt clear and like I could finally relax my brain. I started going to yoga 5 times a week after that and fell in love.

A year later I moved to NYC where I started my Master’s program at NYU for Middle Eastern Studies. During this 2 year Master’s program, I found myself skipping out on events in order to take yoga classes. I would do yoga 5-7 times a week and take breaks writing my thesis to practice yoga. (Pro Tip: do not try to do a crazy balancing pose in your tiny NYC apartment with a candle lit – I didn’t burn down my apartment but I did come close to knocking that candle over once!). When I graduated, I did some freelance work for a nonprofit and decided to get my yoga teacher certification.

Yoga got me through grad school. It got me through a time living in DC where I wasn’t myself and was very much living in my head trapped by my own thoughts. Since becoming a yoga teacher I’ve sought out people who might be going through similar experiences – I work in college and offices (and a ton of banks) – places where people sit all day and their jobs require a constant thinking and disconnection from their bodies. I want to help them the way my teachers have helped me and get them to start to become embodied – not purely intellectual – individuals.

I understand the pain of sitting at a computer for hours on end. I understand what it’s like to feel like you can’t turn off your brain. And I also understand how yoga can take away your physical aches and pains and help bring you into an embodied state and out of your head in such a way that you didn’t even know was a feeling that could exist.

If this sounds like you, let me help you discover a side of yourself you’ll never want to give up – a mentally relaxed and physically stronger version. Shoot me an email and we can talk about how to work together: kateformanyoga@gmail.com

How To Tell If Your Shoulders Are Tight

Often times the thing stopping us from nailing a pose isn’t always the thing we think it is 🧐

We think we don’t have enough flexibility in our spines to do a wheel pose, but really it’s about glute and hamstring strength and wrist and shoulder mobility. We think we don’t have the upper body strength to do a crow pose, but really it’s about your core strength and wrist mobility. Another example would be thinking your hamstrings are tight and that’s why down dog is hard, but in actuality it’s your shoulders.

These are just a few examples of when we think the thing that might be stopping us is one thing, but it ends up being something else. Of course, there are times when the thing stopping us is actually what we think, but for today’s blog post I want to teach you how to test for yourself what might be stopping you in a pose. As you can see from my examples, a very common culprit is shoulder mobility, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Here are 3 ways you can test the mobility of your shoulders so that you and your teacher can make an action plan around increasing shoulder mobility if this is affecting your practice. Do these in front of a mirror so you can actually see what’s going on:

1. Arms Only Line up with Cheek

This is probably the most obvious of my 3 examples, so that’s why we’re starting here. Go ahead and lift your arms up towards the ceiling. And then notice where your arms land. If your upper arms are in front of your shoulder, like next to your cheek, then this is a pretty good indication that your shoulders are very tight. Honestly, if this applies to you, you probably don’t need to bother checking number 2 and 3. But if your arms were more or less able to get closer to being in line with your ears or shoulders, move on to number 2 and 3.

2. Elbows Bending

Another indication of needing to improve shoulder mobility is if when you lift your arms towards the ceiling, if your elbows bend in order to do so. You can also check this in side bends, as it tends to happen there too. If you struggle to straighten your arm at the elbow when you reach your arm over your ear and side bend, then your shoulder mobility is pretty restricted and your body is trying to find the movement at other joints – in this case, at the elbow. If this isn’t you, then head on to number 3.

3. Ribs Sticking Out

This last one is a sneaky sneaky one that most people don’t even realize they’re doing. If you can get your wrists in line with your shoulders and your elbows do NOT bend doing so, but you still feel like your shoulders are tight, then I would bet this one applies to you:

Stand in front of a mirror with your side facing the mirror. Lift your arms by your ears. And then instead of looking at where your arms land, look at what your ribs are doing. Are you jutting your bottom ribs forwards at all? Are you in any kind of low back backbend? If so, this means your body is trying to find more range of motion in your arms and shoulders by pulling it from elsewhere because the shoulder movement is restricted. In the case of number 2 it’s your elbows, but in this case it’s your spine and ribs. This is SUCH a common thing that I see in people. In fact, I do it myself. 

So why does all of this matter for your yoga poses? Other than general joint health and wanting to be able to use your arms efficiently, a lack of range of motion in our shoulder joints can greatly affect our ability to do a pose. These issues become extremely apparent if you look at handstand, so we’re going to look at each of these within the context of handstand to learn why, though we can certainly go over it in terms of wheel, downdog, and more:

1. Arms Only Line Up with Cheek

If you think about what a handstand looks like, you have to be able to get your wrists to stack under your shoulders in order to go vertical. If your arms can’t get in line with your shoulders, then you won’t be able to get your hips and legs over your shoulders, and you’ll never actually be able to get up into the handstand.

2. Elbows Bending

Unless you are a CrossFit junkie, you are most likely not strong enough to support your weight fully on your hands, upside down, as if you’re doing pushups. If your elbows bend in a handstand, you’re effectively asking your body to do upside down pushups, which would be hard as hell, right? Keeping your elbows straight is going to give you the stability and access to strength in your arms to help hold you up vertically and upside down.

3. Ribs Jutting Out

If you’ve ever taken my class before, you’ve heard me say “pull your bottom ribs in” or “lift your front hip points up” in core exercises. This is because once you start to backbend and let your ribs jut out, you lose your core strength and in the case of handstand, you lose the integration of your shoulders, core, and pelvis/legs. If you ever want to balance, you need these 3 things to be integrated and your core needs to be able to be active. What’s more, is when you lose that core strength, and you start to backbend, it can sometimes bother people’s lower backs because there’s no support to the spine. Keeping the ribs in in a handstand will help you stabilize and support your spine in this position so none of that icky low back feeling happens to you.

SO if any of these apply to you, you’re probably thinking “ok cool, Kate, but WTF do I do about this?” Well, I’m offering 1 FREE 30 min one-on-one virtual Zoom sessions for people* who want to get more specific about their yoga practice and create strong, healthier, more flexible bodies they can depend on. Grab your free session with me here to work on you shoulder mobility, and anything else you’re curious about. It’s free. No commitments or CC necessary.

Till next week,

Kate

* Please note this offer is only valid for those individuals who have not taken a private yoga session with me before.

3 Tips For Anxiety Using Your Breath

With the holidays happening and COVID cases spiking, I’m sure anxiety is running high around the world, so I wanted to offer you 3 tips you can do ANYWHERE to manage anxiety and stress. These are tips you can do anytime – and no one will even know you’re doing them! 

1. Count Your Breath

This is super simple and something I like to do at night if I can’t sleep. You’ll inhale and think 1, exhale and think 2, inhale 3, exhale 4, and so on. You can either do this continuously, or you can choose a number to stop at and then repeat starting at 1 again. Personally I find that choosing a number to stop and then repeat keeps me more present and accountable because you have to be focused enough to realize you’ve hit that number. Otherwise the exercise starts to fall into the backdrop and thoughts start to creep in and you don’t realize you’re thinking until you’ve gotten to 50 and have no idea how you got there lol.

2. Counting Backwards Using a Phrase

This is an exercise I’ve taken from the Yoga Nidra practice. (If you’re not sure what yoga Nidra is – it’s basically a very guided meditation. If you’re interested in exploring it further I teach it every Tuesday night at 645pm EST on Zoom. You can sign up by clicking here)

The way this exercise works is you’ll choose a number, and then you begin counting backwards from that number. You’ll think the number on the inhales, and on the exhales you’ll think a phrase that is in the present tense as if it’s already happened. Often times I like to use the phrase “I am calm” but you can use others such as “I am happy” “I am healthy” “I am safe” etc. So for example, you would inhale and think 16, exhale and think I am calm. Inhale 15, exhale I am calm, and so on until you get down to 0. If you lose track you can start back over. 

This is one of my favorite exercises for dealing with anxiety and stress, and again I often will do it before going to sleep if I can’t get my brain to shut off.

3. Box Breathing

Basically the way box breathing works is you’ll inhale for the count of 4, hold it for the count of 4, and exhale for the count of 8. Repeat as much as you’d like. 

I find this has a pretty immediate calming effect on my nervous system, but everyone will respond differently. It took me a while to figure out how to inhale and exhale for these counts without things feeling strained or like I wasn’t able to breathe, so if you’re struggling with that at first it’s totally normal. Play around with how quickly or slowly you inhale and exhale.

One reason this one works is because when we make our exhales longer than our inhales it has an immediate affect on our nervous system to calm it down. 

According to a Healthline article another reason box breathing works is because “the slow holding of breath allows CO2 to build up in the blood. An increased blood CO2 enhances the cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve when you exhale and stimulates your parasympathetic system. This produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.” 1

All you need for these is your breath, and like I said earlier, no one will even know you’re doing them! Give them a try and let me know in the comments below how it goes and which is your favorite!

Till next time,

Kate

1. https://www.healthline.com/health/box-breathing#benefits